I grew up believing I was shy and quiet. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know how to be anything else – because no matter how hard I tried, there were often situations I would find myself in where I was unable to say a word. I had a head full of questions, opinions and desires, but somewhere between their swirling around my brain and the sharing them with others, they often got stuck.
I figured it was because I was so shy. I must be scared of what other people might think or how they might react, and gradually what had once been an inability to talk also became a reluctance to want to try.
A few years ago I learned that my shyness had, in fact, been more than that.
Selective Mutism is a little known condition that affects between 1 and 7 children per 1,000 (depending on which report you read).
These numbers may even be higher, as selective mutism is a largely misunderstood condition that may easily be mis-diagnosed, or shrugged off as shyness or even defiance.
From the point of view of someone who grew up believing that I was fundamentally ‘wrong’ because I found it impossible to express many of my thoughts, feelings and ideas, it scares me to think of the children who may also be struggling through, believing they are all alone, and feeling lost and confused inside of their emotions.
The thing is, selective mutism is not the same as shyness – and it is certainly not defiance. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder, characterised by the inability to talk in certain circumstances. This is usually observed at school, and can be very confusing to understand. Children are often chatty and animated in some situations, and yet completely mute in others.
In conversations with others, I have noticed that many people struggle to understand selective mutism.
“So you chose not to talk?” is a common misperception I have heard countless times.
Um, no. Selective mutism is not a choice. Not once do I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk to him, so I won’t!’ … it was more like ‘Oh, I wish I could talk to him, but I can’t!’
Sometimes it felt like my throat was closed tight. Other times, my tongue would feel large and clumsy inside my mouth – I found I simply didn’t know how to make it form my words. In these situations, I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t physically speak the words. There were also times were I found myself in such a panicky state that I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say – my mind would go completely blank.
I had a lot to say, and I longed to be able to say it, but I couldn’t. I was perceived as shy and quiet, and I’m sure I would have been seen as defiant or rude by some too. I felt trapped inside of my behaviour, with no idea how to change it.
As I understand it now, my anxiety levels were so high that I became physically incapable of speaking. In this situation, the worst thing anyone could do is to push a child into speaking or participating before they are ready. A shy child might cope with this, but a selective mute child will likely withdraw further due to the pressure and additional anxiety. This is why it is so important to recognise selective mutism before the behaviour becomes too entrenched.
If you have never before heard of selective mutism, but suspect that someone you know may be more than ‘just shy’, then reading up on selective mutism will arm you with a new perspective on what might be happening. Please feel free to explore my blog, or the following websites to learn more … you could also google it for much more.
- My most popular posts about selective mutism
- The Selective Mutism Research and Treatment Centre
- The Selective Mutism Group
I owe my children’s book series to my experiences with selective mutism. I find it incredibly important that children are able to understand and share their feelings, and so my books explore different emotional concepts to help children to make sense of things. “The Cat Got My Tongue!” was specifically written about selective mutism. Coming soon I will also release my adult’s book about my experiences, “I Have Something To Say!”. Please sign up for my mailing list if you would like to hear more!